It is quite popular among certain medical bloggers, who count themselves as scientifically sophisticated, to disparage so-called “alternative medicine.”
Indeed, there are entire websites devoted to demonstrating (in homage to Penn and Teller) that various forms of alternative medicine – such as homeopathy, therapeutic touch, the medical application of crystals, Reiki, naturopathy, water therapy, bio-photons, mindfulness training, energy healing and a host of others – are completely devoid of any scientific merit whatsoever; are pablum for the uneducated masses; are, in short, irreducibly and unredeemably woo.
These same medical authors are scandalized into virtual apoplexy by the fact that the NIH has funded an entire section to “study” alternative medicine, and worse, that most respected university medical centers in the land now seem to have embraced alternative medicine, and have established well-funded and heavily-marketed “Centers for Integrative Medicine” (or other similarly-named op-centers for pushing medically suspect alternative “services”).*
Until quite recently, DrRich counted himself among the stalwarts of scientific strict constructionism. He was truly dismayed that the NIH and some of our most well-regarded academic centers (under the guise of wanting to conduct objective “studies” of alternative medicine) have lent an aura of respectability and legitimacy to numerous bizarre ideas and fraudulent claims masquerading as legitimate medical practices. To DrRich, such developments were yet another clear and unmistakable sign of the End Times.
Furthermore, DrRich (a well-known paranoid when it comes to covert rationing) saw a more sinister advantage to the official and well-publicized support that government-funded institutions were giving to the alternative medicine movement. Namely, fostering a widespread impression among the unwashed rabble that alternative medicine is at least somewhat legitimate (and plenty respectable) will further the cause of covert rationing. That is, the more people who can be enticed to seek their diagnoses and their cures from the alternative medicine universe, where they are often spending their own money, the less money these people will soak up from the real healthcare system. With luck, real diagnoses can be delayed and real therapy put off until it’s far too late to achieve a useful outcome by more traditional (and far more expensive) medical means.
So, for several years alternative medicine was seen by DrRich pretty much as it is seen by all of the anti-woo crowd – as an unvarnished evil.
But in recent days the scales have fallen from DrRich’s eyes. He now realizes he was sadly mistaken. Rather than a term of opprobrium, “alternative medicine” may actually be our most direct road to salvation. Indeed, DrRich thinks that far from damning alternative medicine, we should be blessing it, nurturing it, worrying over it, in the precise manner that a mountaineer trapped in a deadly blizzard would worry over the last embers of his dying campfire.
What turned the tide for DrRich was a recent report, issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, estimating that in 2007, Americans spent a whopping $34 billion on alternative medicine. Even more remarkably, a goodly chunk of this money was paid by Americans themselves, out of their own pockets.
The implications of this report should be highly encouraging to those of us who lament the impending creation of a monolithic government-controlled healthcare system, and who have been struggling to imagine ways of circumventing the legions of stone-witted, soul-eating bureaucrats now being prepared (Sauron-like) to descend upon us all, doctor and patient alike.
This is why DrRich has urged primary care physicians to break the bonds of servitude while they still can, strike out on their own, and set up practices in which they are paid directly by their patients. Such arrangements are the only practical means by which individual doctors and patients can immediately restore the broken doctor-patient relationship, and place themselves within a protective enclosure impervious to the slavering soul-eaters.
One reason so few primary care doctors have taken this route (choosing instead to retire, to change careers and become deep-sea fishermen, or simply to give up and become abject minions of the forces of evil) is that they do not believe patients will actually pay them out of their own pockets.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, this new report from the CDCP demonstrates once and for all that Americans will, indeed, pay billions of dollars from their own pockets for their own healthcare – even the varieties of healthcare whose only possible benefits are mediated by the placebo effect. DrRich believes that many of the people buying homeopathic remedies are doing so less because they believe homeopathy works, and more because they feel abandoned by the healthcare system and by their own doctors, and realize they have to do SOMETHING. The CDCP report, in DrRich’s estimation, reflects the magnitude of the American public’s pent-up demand for doctors whose chief concern is for them, and not for the demands of third party payers.
Perhaps more importantly, this new report implies that it will be somewhat more difficult than DrRich previously believed for the government to outlaw private-sector healthcare activities. Creating a monolithic government-controlled healthcare system would naturally require the authorities to make it illegal for Americans to spend their own money on their own healthcare, thus rendering direct-pay medical practices illegal, and putting the final stake into the heart of the doctor-patient relationship. But the rousing success of the alternative medicine universe will make such laws difficult to enact.
To see why, consider just how encouraging this new CDCP report must be to the third-party payers. Thanks in no small part to the efforts of the government (and the academy) to legitimize alternative medicine, Americans are spending $34 billion a year on woo. This amount indicates tremendous savings for the traditional healthcare system. The actual amount saved, of course, is impossible to measure, but has to be far greater than just $34 billion. Some substantial proportion of patients spending money on alternative medicine, had they chosen traditional medical care instead, might have consumed expensive diagnostic tests, surgery, expensive prescription drugs, and other legitimate medical services. Furthermore, those legitimate medical services (as legitimate medical services are wont to do) often would have generated even more expenditures – by extending the survival of patients with chronic diseases, by identifying the need for even more diagnostic and therapeutic services, and by causing side effects requiring expensive remedies. (While alternative medicine is famous for being useless, it is also most often pretty harmless, and tends to produce relatively few serious side effects – except, of course, for causing a delay in making actual diagnoses and administering useful therapy, but that’s a good thing if you’re a payer.) So the amount of money the payers actually save thanks to alternative medicine must be some multiplier of the amount spent on the alternative medicine itself.
What this means is payers (which under a government system means the government) will be loathe to do anything that might discourage the success and growth of alternative medicine, and this fact alone may stop them from making it illegal for Americans to pay for their own healthcare.
Still, we musn’t be too sanguine about these prospects. Under a government-controlled system, the imperative to control every aspect of healthcare (in the name of fairness) will be very, very strong. It is easy to envision the feds declaring several varieties of alternative medicine to be covered services, so people wouldn’t have to buy alternative medicine themselves.
But alternative medicine (bless it) will be impervious to government control. Practitioners of alternative medicine aren’t doing what they are doing in order to be subject to federal regulation and bureaucratic meddling. If the feds declare, say, homeopathy and therapeutic touch to be legitimate, covered services under the universal health plan, why, the alternative medicine gurus will simply come up with entirely new forms of alternative medicine specifically to remain outside the universal plan. (New varieties of alternative medicine already appear with dizzying speed, and can be invented at will. No bureaucracy could ever hope to keep up.)
Therefore, as long as the central authorities depend on alternative medicine as a robust avenue for covertly rationing healthcare, the purveyors of woo will always be able to flourish outside the real healthcare system. And this, DrRich believes, represents the ultimate value of woo, and establishes why we should all be encouraging and nurturing woo instead of disparaging it.
DrRich has speculated before on various black market approaches to healthcare which could be attempted by American doctors (and investors) should restrictive, government-controlled healthcare become a reality. Some of these were: medical speakeasies; floating off-shore medical centers on old aircraft carriers; medical centers just south of the border (the establishment of which, at last, would stimulate the feds to seal the borders against illegal passage once and for all); and combination medical center/casinos on the sovereign land of Native American reservations.
But now, thanks to the success of alternative medicine, there is a direct and straightforward path for American primary care physicians to practice a form of now-long-gone “traditional” American medicine, replete with a robust doctor-patient relationship, right out in the open. Simply declare this kind of practice to be a new variety of alternative medicine. Likely, you will need to come up with a new name for it (such as “Therapeutic Allopathy,” or “Reciprocal Duty Therapeutics”), and perhaps invent some new terminology to describe what you’re doing. But what you’re actually doing will be so fundamentally different from what PCPs will be doing under government-controlled healthcare as to be unrecognizable, and nobody will be able to argue it’s not alternative medicine. In fact, it will seem nearly as wierd as Reiki.
Alternative medicine, in other words, will provide American doctors who want to practice the kind of medicine they should be and want to be practicing with the cover they need to do so. And this is why we must support medical woo, and celebrate its continued growth and success.
* A list of these academic medical institutions now sporting Centers of Woo is maintained by Orac, and can be found here. The length of Orac’s cavalcade of woo, and the famous names appearing on it, is truly stunning. The sinking feeling one gets from looking at Orac’s list can only be surpassed by actually clicking on a few of the links he provides, and sampling some of the actual woo-sites offered by these prestigious academic centers, which read like excerpts of some of the more unguarded moments from Oprah, or even the Huffington post.
*This blog post was originally published at The Covert Rationing Blog*